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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Coco Chanel

I know next to nothing about "grande couture" - the likes of Balenciaga, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. Like everybody else, I have seen on TV, impossibly thin models striding up and down catwalks in outlandish clothes. There was nothing there which made me want to buy. First off, the clothes would look very different on me because I am not impossibly thin with interminable legs. I am rather dumpy and have short legs. Next, many a times, they looked far too gaudy/strange for me - like the one that showed one breast. Thirdly, I can't bring myself to pay that much to show off one breast for if that is style and elegance, it can be quite easily done for free.

On a plane trip a while back, I watched a movie called Coco Before Chanel, a movie which traced Coco Chanel's humble origins up until her success with La Maison Chanel. The movie ends with Chanel seated at her favourite spot hidden behind the mirrors of the iconic staircase at La Maison Chanel where models walked up and down.

I hadn't known before then that Chanel had been an orphan... that she was first one man's mistress, and then another's... that in the world she was young in, men did not marry for love but for money and for titles and to please the elders in the family. They married for duty and loved their mistresses so well that entire family fortunes were lost to "croqueuses de diamants" (diamond crunchers) with great charm, beautiful faces, no titles and few morals.

I hadn't known that Chanel designed for women's comfort. Her clothes had large pockets and were made for both comfort and beauty. She dared in a time where women wore frills, lace and corsets to have women wear feminised men's clothes of the time. The sleek look of the well-known Chanel suit was a result of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel's lifelong belief that women should dress for comfort.

Amazing! Me who thought that haute couture was an exercise in feminine discomfort that started with a no food diet and ended in 3 inch high heels that damage the spine and deform the feet. You mean Coco Chanel ... THE Coco Chanel designed women's clothes for their comfort? Gee... what are modern day designers doing then? But well... I am not one to comment because I dunno much about what modern day designers do anyway. Maybe they too design for our comfort. Who knows?

But the movie was intriguing enough that I bought a biography of Chanel written by Axel Madsen. I was mesmerised from Page One. It's the story of an unloved and unwanted little girl who grew up knowing that unless she looked out for herself, no one would. It's the story of a woman who never married because she could not bring herself to trust her life to any man. La Maison Chanel was her only security and if marriage meant giving that up, then she could not choose marriage. The book writes that even though she could have married the richest man in England at the time, she "found something humiliating in the way men expected a woman to be thankful for being offered a life of dependent idleness", and was not able to leave La Maison Chanel to become the Duchess of Westminster.

She was shy too... afraid of people who might reject her. She was so shy that she hid from her clientele and wouldn't come out unless something or someone made her feel emotionally safe. She had strong opinions, a sharp tongue and exacting standards. In hiding herself, she reduced the chances of offending another. Yet, her very reticence gave her a mystery that intrigues us to this day. And she was combative. She picked fights and won them.

Chanel not only gave to French women... and then to women all over the world the sleek lines of the Chanel suit, but also a set of mannerisms and speech patterns that departed from the feminine coyness of the era before Chanel. French women speak their mind with class and elegance. Did that come from Chanel too? She defined class and elegance for the modern woman and unbeknownst to me, my predilection for simple whites, plain browns and no frills may have come from influences, which came from influences, which came from influences, which came from Chanel. Again, who knows?

Strangely though, at the end of her life, Chanel urged the young women of her acquaintance to marry, have children and settle down. She asked them to do the exact same thing that she was psychologically incapable of because one of the first lessons she learnt as a child was that she could depend on no other but herself.

Perhaps this was her singular regret? In her old age, she was immensely lonely. She was so lonely that she relied on paid staff for companionship, and she invited her butler to sit down to dinner with her. Sometimes, I reckon, it is far better to lead an ordinary life... marry, have children and learn to depend on another in as much as another depends on you. The world knows nothing of you but you would be happy in the cocoon of those who were loved by you and love you in return.

Great talents come at a great price... and very often, if you're a genius like Coco Chanel, it's because of a psychological handicap that no one sees but that pushes you unswervingly in one direction and one direction only - survive, make it big, be the best and conquer all. Except that when you find that you have conquered all, you're all alone to enjoy it.

It is strange how this woman fascinates me from beyond the grave. Chanel No 5 is probably the only thing that she designed which we can now buy since the La Maison Chanel now belongs to the Wertheimer family, and its artistic design has devolved to people who never knew Chanel personally. Chanel No 5 was designed by her, for herself... and for women she thought classy and elegant enough to wear it.

I think I'm gonna go get me a bottle of Chanel No 5 just to be able to smell the essence of the classiest woman of all time. Do people allow free whiffs of a classic perfume such as that though?


My SINFONIA said...

Hi Petunia, I love the movie and the book too. Her life is intriguing. There is another Chanel movie done after the Audrey Tautau one - Coco and Igor Stravinsky but I find that too much of a mood piece - too slow

petunialee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
petunialee said...

Yes, yes! I watched the Audrey Tautou one! I watched it in French and begin to understand why almost every French woman possesses a hint of bitchiness and a lot of seduction. It's an attitude of the mind that comes out in word and gesture... and it is unconsciously picked up. I think she made French women who they are because she redefined the essence of womanhood by being herself.

Wen-ai said...

I've been a fan of CoCo Channel ever since I was a little girl. Where all my friends were crazy about LV, Prada and Sonia Rykiel (the Ah Lian days), I was the only one who was lusting over some "auntie" label. Haha... but todate I've not owned a single item of Channel 'cos they really do cost an arm and a leg. But the movie was great!

petunialee said...

An arm and a leg? *shudder* I think I'll settle for a free whiff then.

Open Kitchen Concept said...

I wanna read the book too!

petunialee said...

Hee! OKC - Looks like Chanel has universal appeal for all women eh?

Blur Ting said...

I have not watched the movie or read the book but you really must get the Chanel No 5. I had one in my 20s and I always felt so classy wearing it. It's so refined and sophisticated and small bottle goes a long way.

Open Kitchen Concept said...

Oh.. btw, apparently the classic 2.55 Chanel bag is also something she designed.. because she wanted to have her hands free from carrying the bag - so practical, ya? It is still a very nice looking bag today.. so she is really hugely talented

petunialee said...

OKC - Oh yes! I went to google... It is very pretty... and the Reissue version is the exact replica of the one she designed too!! It's much prettier than the classic with its aged leather.